Not long after the result was announced on Friday morning, Sky News had reduced the complexity of the referendum into a simple-to-read graphic with Scotland and London highlighted in yellow and the rest of the UK in blue. Although an accurate depiction of regional results, the graphic overstated the nature of Brexit’s support. It was simply not the case that all of England except the capital voted to leave the EU. Not only did every result include a sizable Remain vote, there were many places where Remain won a majority of support. Liverpool and Manchester both voted for Remain yet these yellow points in the sea of blue don’t fit the convenient ‘Island London’ narrative. So, for a while, Sky’s striking graphic persisted. As far as England was concerned, it became London vs the rest of the world. A metropolitan elite vs denizens of the sticks. It was ‘us’ vs ‘them’.
The division is one that newspapers spent the weekend perpetuating. Most ran articles attempting to understand the mysterious ‘them’ who are the English working class. The problem I have is that I’m one of ‘them’ rather than one of ‘us’ and I don’t recognise the world described in these despatches from the front line. I was born and raised and live and work in the north, in one of those ‘blue’ communities that so shocked Westminster. I identify myself as working class, though I’m not entirely sure what that means. In education, interests, and beliefs I’m not exactly a representative sample but, in truth, there isn’t one working class but many. That’s the first thing to remember when reading the next Guardian field report of life among the northern tribes: not every one of us is an inner city single mother snorting food stamps and smoking crack.
Certainly, some stereotypes do prevail. There are plenty of the retired miners spending six nights a week playing bingo in their local Labour Club. There are plenty of white van driving men who fly the English flag and curse the day the Channel Tunnel opened. Yet take any row of terraced houses and you might find the amateur historian or photographer or the expert in stamps or the Russian ballet. The working class comprise the affluent and the impoverished; the educated and the under-qualified; the angry and the calm; the patriotic and nationalistic; and quite a few who are simply apolitical and indifferent.
It is certainly too easy to sneer and to dismiss working class voters as the ‘idiots’ who didn’t understand the issues and who, in their hatred of a right wing Tory government, ensured that there will be an even more right wing Tory government in the near future. It is also too easy to talk of working class bigotry when it was the decidedly middle class Katie Hopkins who made the nasty ‘finally looking after our own’ quip when congratulating Rochdale for voting Leave. Bigotry knows no class divide in the same way that a vote for Brexit was not always a vote for bigotry. Yet the media must also be cautious about patronising the working classes in the way of the Little Dorritt school of journalism. The problem of asking ‘what do they have to say’ is that use of ‘they’. It is a form of disconnect that reflects the degree to which regional debates are an adjunct to those that really form opinion. As Andrew Neil says during Daily Politics: ‘and now over the political news where you live…’ Going over to the regions means that the nation often overlooks the regions. Media opinion tends to reflect those within an hour’s drive of the news studios where the newspapers are reviewed nightly. And now, for a view of the day’s news: Stig Abel and Carole Malone… Iain Dale and Julia Hartley-Brewer. Is it any wonder if they tend to share the same outlook, express the same opinion, and confirm their own biases?
The result is a sense of isolation here in the north. Being socially and culturally adrift is hard to understand unless you are yourself adrift. It is not something we have chosen but something forced upon us by location. It comes down to some simple facts that affect day-to-day living. A few weeks ago, I found myself planning a trip to London. As a would-be cartoonist, I try to get to see the work of my favourite artists and I really wanted to see an exhibition of Martin Rowson’s cartoons in Lewisham. I searched the web for tickets but early morning trains from Manchester or Liverpool were in excess of £100 each, with those back similarly priced. Morning trains to the capital (and evening trains leaving London) are in high demand but trains travelling the other way run relatively empty and cheap. It means that travelling into London for the day is prohibitively expensive yet travelling out of London for the day relatively cheap. I would have to travel into London late in the day and travel home in the morning but that would require one or two nights of accommodation. A day out turns into a small holiday. The result: I didn’t go. It would have been cheaper to buy Rowson’s originals and have them shipped up to me.
This might seem like a trivial detail but life is made up of trivial details and trivial details often shape our perceptions. It means the North feels distinctly separate to London where £81.87 is spent per head of population on arts funding. The rest of the country receives £19.80 per head. Here in my corner of the North West, the funding is considerably less. Warrington was recently described as the ‘worst place for culture’ by the Royal Society of Arts yet we locals consider Warrington a cultural oasis compared to our even more immediate provision.
Now, of course, I’m framing this sense of isolation in my own terms. Not everybody up here is a frustrated cartoonist and I was also untypical in that I voted for Remain. Yet that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand why the area went so strongly blue. Politicians for a long time have tended to speak down to us, speak over us, or simply take us for granted. At the last election, the Tories put up a candidate who lived in Tring in Hertfordshire, 142 miles away. Labour, for their part, routinely drop their favourites into these safe seats. When Shaun Woodward defected from the Tories, he soon turned up in the neighbouring seat of St Helens South despite having no connection with the town. Meanwhile, our current MP here in St Helens North speaks with a strong Northern Irish accent and, though I have nothing against Conor McGinn MP, it does mean that we don’t even hear our own distinctive accent representing us in the House of Commons. That, surely, means something.
The examples are too many to list but one more to make my point. When The City of London declared last Friday morning, the BBC went live to the count as David Dimbleby explained that it was the smallest of the areas to vote, containing only 4,399 people. By the time it came for Liverpool to announce, there was no camera to record a decision made by 203,554 people. Trivial? Perhaps. But, again, when this happens all the time, do you ever wonder why we feel forgotten?
Nowhere is this disconnect more relevant than in terms of the Labour Party. It’s often said that these are Labour’s heartlands yet nobody, in truth, really knows what that means. The language of wealth distribution was powerful but the language of immigration is now stronger. There is still a popular commitment to the NHS and, to a lesser extent, renationalisation, but it would be foolish to think that most voters have a soft stance on social issues. It might upset metropolitan liberals but many northern working class voters would not have liked being lectured to on Europe by Eddie Izzard in a pink beret and with his finger nails painted black. Yes that might sound bigoted, backward, and even offensive but I offer it as a simple fact. Small town northern England is nothing like London and it is a mistake to think otherwise. It is that very mistake that is now causing the Labour Party to haemorrhage votes to UKIP.
The solution would involve such profound changes to the way we perceive our nation that it’s hard to imagine how we could change. The habit of London elites is to throw money to the regions with a dismissive ‘here, have a new arts centre on us’ attitude. Yet that does not change the political reality. When people complain about life in Liverpool, Wigan, Bury, Rochdale, or Leeds, too many in the south sniff disdainfully or resort to insults that, directed towards any other minority, would not be allowed. Clichés are allowed to persist about Liverpudlians being ‘self-pitiful’ or (the classic insults that are rarely censured) ‘light fingered’ or ‘scroungers’. Northern accents are treated as though they’d somehow indicative of mental processes slower than an Aardman animation. Johnny Vegas is the loud boorish symbol of northern masculinity and films like ‘The Brothers Grimsby’ make the working classes objects of ridicule instead of understanding.
If you wonder why the north voted the way it voted, perhaps it would better to look not to the north but to the south and then wonder instead if they have ever really thought to listen.